Rediscovering Self-Advocacy Through Student-Centered Learning

Amber Johnson and Jennifer Colp of the Manhattan-Ogden School District recently won the 2021 Trailblazer Practitioner Award, given to educators who are exceptional champions for student-centered learning. As upper elementary teachers, Jennifer and Amber work hard to ensure that students know their own abilities and are aware of where they are with regard to their goals. Personalized learning has given them the ability to work as a teaching team even though they have different teaching styles and work in different schools and grade levels.

by Amber Johnson, 4th Grade Teacher at Ogden Elementary School, Manhattan-Ogden School District (USD 383)

As educators we have a vision for our students to be successful humans, whether that be in a classroom, in a career, or in communities. Jennifer, as a mom of two boys, and I, as a foster parent, saw a need for self-advocacy which led to the discovery of personalized learning. 

Jennifer began incorporating student choice through a math review learning path in a classroom of fifth graders in the Manhattan-Ogden school district. After seeing increased engagement, she was ready to implement more choice and a learning path model during a regular week of ELA instruction, using the district-provided ELA curriculum. Student choice existed in her classroom for many years prior to implementation of personalized learning, but it wasn’t until the development of the learning path that student ownership became evident. 

I moved from the instructor role to more of a facilitator role when I began using primarily small groups for learning. In a school with over 80% of students at or below the poverty line, I saw an opportunity for differentiated learning and developing student leaders within the small groups. Through a deepened understanding of the personalized learning mindset, I saw my students recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their desire to grow and master skills. 

At this point in time, both of us were working closely with our district instructional coach, who recognized the similarities that were occurring in our classrooms. We began to collaborate to best use our ELA curriculum in ways that empowered students in their learning. Using a learning path/playlist structure, students in our classrooms have choice as they work towards mastery of ELA skills. Jennifer’s students are given the choice in how they learn, what texts they choose to read, and how they practice and apply their skills. My students use their playlist to create their schedule for the week, using their personal “smarts” to choose how they practice various skills and work through their close reading. 

Through both of our experiences, we discovered the need to focus on creating flexible learning spaces in our classrooms. We want students to choose which climate zone they want or need to engage in. Through self-awareness and teacher feedback, students can appropriately choose to learn alongside or from other students, with a teacher, or independently. As we reflect on our students’ learning, we realize our current practices and methods have shifted, but our philosophies and goals for our students have remained static. Self-advocacy and student voice continue to be the springboard on which we make decisions. 

We continue to revisit our “why” as we move forward on the personalized learning journey. In our school district, we consider ourselves trail guides for our fellow educators, and we encourage them to consider their “why” as they make decisions to empower their students. It is not a matter of the what and the how to embrace the personalized learning mindset but knowing who you are as an educator and the reason why you do what you do.

Amber JohnsonAmber Johnson is a former librarian and current third and fourth grade teacher. She gets excited about opportunities for students to advocate for themselves in the world around them. She is a lifelong resident of Kansas, foster parent, and musician.

Jennifer ColpJennifer is a passionate, 5th grade teacher who loves empowering students to meet their full potential and more. Jennifer has experience in primary and intermediate grades. She is married to an encouraging husband and has two boys who teach her everyday what it means to be a boy mom. Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @Jennifer_colp

Manhattan-Ogden School District is located in the northeastern portion of Kansas. Bergman Elementary is located in the City of Manhattan and Ogden Elementary is located in the City of Ogden.